June is here and it is national LGBTQ+ month. Also known as Pride month, it is celebrated annually to commemorate and honor LGBTQ history, rights, and culture. Pride was initially more a series of protest marches for gay liberation starting with the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan, but with continued breakthroughs in equality, most major cities in the world now have some form of a pride celebration.
Although the United States and many other countries in the world have made great strides in LGBTQ+ rights and equality, many people still struggle with their sexual orientation, whether it be confusion about what it is or what it means for their life; how it aligns with religious and cultural norms; or fears of judgement, discrimination, and ostracism.
In fact, almost all people go through a series of stages in coming to terms with their sexual orientation—whether relatively brief or prolonged—and some consider it a lifelong journey. This has been the subject of psychological and sociological research for decades resulting in numerous theoretical models (Rosario, et al., 2006). In 1979, one of the pioneers of this field was clinical psychologist Vivienne Cass who developed the Cass Theory—a model that describes the developmental process individuals go through towards fully accepting and integrating their sexual identity (Rosario, et al., 2006).
Since then, critics have cited many holes in this theory, such as difficulty in delineating the different stages; the faulty notion of a linear model towards successful identity integration; to the fact that most studies only represent Western cultures and cannot necessarily be translated into other cultures (Rotheram-Borus & Fernandez, 1995).
While the particulars of theory are better left to the researchers, there is a usefulness in having a general (albeit imperfect) model to explain how LGBTQIA+ individuals strive for congruence between identity and behavior. Some refer to this process as “coming out” and some refer to the more specific process of achieving identity synthesis, but regardless of names, it can be helpful to understand the complex emotional, social, spiritual, and mental difficulties that many of the LGBTQIA+ community experience.
A unique aspect of the development of sexual identity is that, unlike members of other minority groups (i.e. racial, ethnic, religious minorities) , most LGBTQIA+ members are not raised in a community of similar, like-minded people who teach, model, and reinforce that identity (Rosario, et al., 2006). Rather, it is more likely that most individuals are raised in communities that are either ignorant or openly hostile to their identity. This leaves many unprepared, unsupported, and stigmatized, with some even facing physical threats of violence.
As some individuals develop, they experience a sense of cognitive dissonance—that their innermost thoughts, feelings, values, and actions do not match with one another or with the prevailing cultural norms. This can create significant mental and emotional pain and the desire to resolve the discord. It is important to note that this process is unique to each individual and is highly variable from person to person based on a host of factors such as age, place of birth, cultural identity, race/ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, upbringing, and so much more. The following is an example of the six-stage model of “coming out”, called the Cass Theory.
Stage 1: Identity Confusion
Generally, from birth, people assume their identity to be consistent with the heterosexual or gender-conforming majority. However, as people age and try to fit in society’s standards, they start to become aware of same-sex attraction or a different personal gender identity that causes serious emotional conflict (Cass, 1984). At this early stage of confusion and developing awareness many individuals will attempt to suppress their thoughts and desires and may feel scared, anxious, or even self-loathing. At this time, they are not ready to verbalize their feelings and seek out information privately to better understand what they are experiencing.
Stage 2: Identity Comparison
Stage 2 is characterized by comparisons and feelings of social alienation (Cass, 1984). The emotional discord between how they feel and how they think they are “supposed” to feel continues and often worsens. This may cause anxiety, depression, isolation, and anger. Depending on a variety of circumstances, one may feel afraid to acknowledge, explore, or disclose their emotional conflict and may even feel pressured to explicitly conform to the heterosexual majority to avoid scrutiny. For others, this is a time where they begin to explore their sexual or gender identity and how they can fit into the LGBTQIA+ community.
Stage 3: Identity Tolerance
When an individual reaches identity tolerance, they begin to accept themselves for who they are and exemplify a greater level of commitment to the LGBTQIA+ community (Cass, 1984). Instead of hiding who they are, they start to find safe subcultures where they belong and fit in. During this stage, they will feel even more alienated from the gender-conforming group. However, their newfound subculture will help them lessen the alienation and loneliness that they’re feeling.
Stage 4: Identity Acceptance
A sign of identity acceptance is when a person begins to feel a positive identification with their new sense of self, as well as an inner peace and fulfillment that had previously been missing. They also begin to accept that same-sex attractions are a healthy and normal expression of human love or that living as the gender with which they most identify feels more honest and truer. At this stage, one feels more connected to people from the LGBTQIA+ community and prefers being with them more than their original community (Cass, 1984). Individuals also begin to disclose who they are to people close to them or to allies that will keep their identity a secret.
Stage 5: Identity Pride
At this stage, people will more strongly identify themselves with the LGBTQIA+ community and even feel pride about their sexual orientation or gender identity (Cass, 1984). Some may become involved in advocacy to promote equality for all. For some, however, they might explicitly choose it over the heterosexual or mainstream society. For individuals who endured substantial hurt and trauma, they may even develop a sense of hostility or rigidness—even to the extreme of devaluation—towards individuals and institutional values to prioritize LGBTQIA+ individuals.
Stage 6: Identity Synthesis
While identity pride establishes a dichotomy between the LGBTQIA+ community and the heterosexual community, identity synthesis breaks that dichotomy and allows for an openness and non-defensiveness about their sexual orientation or gender identity where they no longer feel the need to justify their lifestyle to others (Cass, 1984). This allows for a full (re)integration into society that involves acceptance, respect, and support towards both those similar and different, including their heterosexual and cisgender counterparts.
For many, this becomes a full-circle moment, where the individual might realize that their sexual orientation or gender identity is not the only defining aspect of their identity. Instead, they may find out that their identity can be part of many other things.
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Author: Karen McKinney, LCMHCA
Cass, V.C. (1984). Homosexual identity formation: Testing a theoretical model. The Journal of Sex Research, 20(2), 143-167.
Floyd, F.J., & Bakeman, R. (2006). Coming-out across the life course: implications of age and historical context. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 35(3), 287-96. doi: 10.1007/s10508-006-9022-x.
Rosario, M., Schrimshaw, E.W., Hunter, J., Braun, L. (2006). Sexual identity development among gay, lesbian, and bisexual youths: consistency and change over time. Journal of Sex Research, 43(1), 46-58. doi: 10.1080/00224490609552298.
Rotheram-Borus, M., & Fernandez, M.I. (1995). Sexual orientation and developmental challenges experienced by gay and lesbian youths. Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviors, (25), 26-34. PMID: 8553426.
This information is generalized and intended for educational purposes only. Due to potential individual contraindications, please see your primary care provider before implementing any strategies in these posts.